In many situations, the smartest questions you can ask will begin with the word “why.”
Think about that. Have you noticed the inquisitiveness of young children? As long as they’re encouraged to do so, they seem to ask questions endlessly. They want to know how things work. They want to know the purpose of things. They want to know why. And their thirst for knowledge and understanding accelerates their learning.
In countless workplaces over the years I’ve noticed that new hires often ask the best questions: Why is this procedure in place? Why was this process adopted? Why is this step required? Why hasn’t this been considered? A fresh set of eyes can often spotlight something that warrants a new look.
In that environment there may be stereotypes that need to be jettisoned. Sure, some in the younger generations may warrant the negative labels, but most do not. Many in the so-called Why Generation are ambitious and entrepreneurial. They are bright and creative. They are kind and generous. They are our future. So shouldn’t we do everything possible to help them find their way in the marketplace of ideas and worthy work?
Mark C. Penna thinks so. His book is Answering Why: Unleashing Passion, Purpose, and Performance in Younger Generations. Frequently cited as a national expert in education enrollment, retention and performance, he has ideas on how to empower upcoming generations to turn the business world on its head.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Despite record low unemployment rates in the U.S., there’s still a gap between the professional skills needed to thrive in modern business and the actual skills possessed by many of today’s workers. What can individual workers do to ensure that their own career development activities make—and keep—them competitive?
Mark Perna: Actually, it is both technical and professional skills that are lacking in today’s workforce. Technical skills are the “hard” skills required to perform the work. They’re crucially important, but they’re no longer enough by themselves. Today, successful workers need professional skills (or soft skills) more than ever.
Professional skills are the personal attributes to succeed in the workplace, such as work ethic, communication, ability to accept feedback, confidence, leadership, flexibility, integrity, work-life balance, punctuality, stress management, and many more. According to a Wall Street Journal survey of more than 900 executives, 89% said they have a very difficult or somewhat difficult time finding hires with these skills and traits.
Professional skills will never go out of date. These crucial character traits and values were essential yesterday and will continue to matter in the age of Artificial Intelligence—perhaps more than ever. By developing and enhancing professional skills, candidates can create a significant competitive advantage for themselves, effectually future-proofing their careers.
Building your own competitive advantage is similar to the personal brand advocated by many employment coaches, but it takes that concept a step further. Candidates who stand out in the hiring field are those who create their own perfect intersection of academic knowledge, technical competency, and professional skills—realizing that they must continue learning and retooling throughout their careers.
Duncan: Many people in older generations label younger people as entitled, unfocused, and even lazy. Many younger workers—the so-called Why Generation—attach equally unflattering labels to their seniors. What’s the key to—not just calling a truce—but mutual understanding and appreciation so the generations can learn and collaborate together for the greater good?
Perna: The first thing we in the older generations need to do is rid ourselves of the negative stereotypes that may be lingering in the back of our minds. If we can free our minds from these preconceived ideas about the Why Generation, we can then see why they have the potential to be our next “greatest generation.” They’re tenacious. They’re smart. They’ve been reared for achievement and when they see a compelling reason to put forth that effort, they can achieve almost anything.
I call today’s young people the Why Generation because they always want to know the reasons behind what they’re asked to do. Older generations often perceive this as a challenge to authority, but generally that’s the last thing the Why Generation intends. Young people ask why because the answer validates their fullest effort and contribution. They want to see the big picture because they care about the quality of the work and want to innovate the process and make it better for everyone. Understanding that simple trait can defuse that dynamic between older and younger generations working together.
On their side, the younger generations can recognize the fact that the older generations can’t read their minds. The older generations don’t hear “why?” the same way that those age 40 and under do, and may mistakenly think there are subversive motives behind the question. If you identify with the Why Generation mindset, sharing your big-picture reasons for asking why can go a long way toward making the older-gen worker an ally rather than an adversary.
Duncan: What can organizations do to improve performance and retention of younger people who value workplace “meaning” more than many in previous generations?
Perna: It’s all about creating a compelling purpose and vision and then communicating that message in both the recruitment process and the ongoing retention strategy. Companies that embrace this reality will take a step back to evaluate their culture and company vision. Does it have value that goes beyond stock numbers, shareholder returns, and simply making money? Does it make the world a better place in some way? If a company does not have a vision and culture focused on doing something positive for the community, younger workers are much less likely to want to invest their time, energy, and career there. But when a meaningful, world-bettering vision is consistently communicated and prioritized as a cornerstone of the company, employees are much more likely to buy into that narrative and contribute their best effort to the outcome.
Today’s younger workers can be more than employees; they can be tremendous allies in the pursuit of heightened organizational performance. But this will only happen if they want to go where the company is headed.
Duncan: What role have social media played in the work preferences of the Why Generation?
Perna: Social media has changed our world and culture forever, and smart companies are embracing it. Negative reviews and comments can go viral quickly, which is why some companies employ teams of Millennials and Gen-Zers to trawl the web and respond promptly to negative feedback before it spirals out of control.
Gen Z often sees the workplace as an extension of their online presence and social media circle, and they will talk about their workplace experiences online. This can be a positive thing for employers, especially if the company is active in the community, promotes volunteerism, and creates other opportunities for employees to contribute and give back. Younger-gen employees will see these opportunities as fun experiences they want to share with their social circles, creating positive buzz around the company.
Duncan: What can parents do to help prepare their children to succeed in today’s economy?
Perna: As parents, we have to recognize that our children will only grow into their independence by venturing out on their own to earn income, pay taxes, budget effectively, and experience the full freedom of being the captain of their own destiny. This builds a sense of pride, self-satisfaction, and accomplishment that cannot be achieved by adult children living with their parents. That is what I wanted for my sons. I didn’t want to kick them out of the house, but I wanted to eliminate the safety net. And so I planted the seeds early on that sometime in the summer after their graduated high school, they would be moving out—to college, to the military, or to some other rewarding pathway. Bottom line: they would be moving out.
My plan was inspired by Hernán Cortés, who in 1519 ordered the scuttling of his ships once his expedition reached Mexico to ensure that his crew would be motivated to conquer and succeed in this new land. If the ships were in sight, available for a hasty retreat, once the going got tough they would become the easy choice for the crew. He secured his crew’s motivation, dedication, and teamwork by destroying the safety net—the ships. I, too, wanted my sons to be motivated to conquer and succeed in their lives. And that’s why I pushed them toward independence and resisted the temptation to make everything too easy for them.
Duncan: At what point should a young person’s career exploration begin? Why then?
Perna: The career exploration process should start as young as middle school, so young people can move forward into their education and training pathways with confidence. No one should go to college to figure out their life and direction—they should go with a defined purpose and goal already set. College is the most expensive time of life and while it can be a great experience and asset, it can also create needless debt and frustration if used as an exercise in career exploration. Robust, comprehensive, purpose-driven career exploration should become a cornerstone of every public school system in America.
Duncan: There are many satisfying—and high-demand—careers that require qualifications other than a traditional college degree. What can employers do to make these career more attractive to the Why Generation?
Perna: First, we have to realize that it’s not just a skills gap—it’s an Awareness Gap. This is the chasm between what people think they know about a field or industry and its actual reality. Economist Gad Levanon says that skills-gap professions like machinists, electricians, plant operators and rail transportation workers aren’t the “cool and sexy” occupations that young Americans want. While I agree that Generations Y and Z are looking for exciting, cutting-edge professions, these types of critical jobs can be the new sexy careers of the future—both for the work itself, which is rapidly becoming more technologically advanced, and for the lifestyle such high-paying careers can make possible.
Employers must overcome the Awareness Gap, not just about the careers they’re offering but also about the lifestyle that such a career can help you afford. The Why Generation is all about experiences and lifestyle. The career, believe it or not, is secondary to those things.
This piece first appeared in Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular columnist.